Mady Mesplé was probably the last of the sort of singer who from the 1920s until the 1970s would have been thought of as having the “typical” French soprano sound: very bright, needle-sharp but with little depth of tone. Those who do not respond to such a sound often refer to it as acidic, shallow or shrill. Its timbre does make the conveying of depth of feeling difficult, but its clarity and brilliance can be very effective in the right music. Mesplé’s voice, like those of Erna Sack, Ellen Beech Yaw and Mozart’s sister-in-law Aloysia Weber, was what is technically called a “soprano acuto sfogato”, with an exceptional upper extension. Though the highest note in this collection is the F sharp above top C (the last note of the last CD), Mesplé could apparently reach the A flat above that.
Mady Mesplé, born in Toulouse in 1931, made her operatic debut in 1953. From the mid-1950s she began to rival Mado Robin in the high soprano repertoire, becoming supreme when that singer died in 1960. Although Mesplé had a good career abroad, it was essentially centred on France. She retired from the stage in 1985, but continued to give concerts and to make recordings for some years. In the mid-1990s she developed Parkinson’s disease and wrote a book, La Voix du Corps, about her career and experiences of living with the disease, and worked closely with the Association France Parkinson. In 2011, to celebrate he 80th birthday, French EMI issued a 4 CD box of her recordings. I have been unable to discover full details of that set, but from what I have been able to glean it appears highly likely that the present issue is simply a reissue of that birthday set.
The first CD is of operatic arias, unsurprisingly mainly French, and beginning with three excerpts from what would nowadays be called her “signature role”, Delibes’s Lakmé, from the complete 1970 recording under Alain Lombard. In the very first track, the Bell Song, she blots her copybook for me by her approach to the bell section. This section divides performers into those who sing it as the text implies, as the tinkling of the bell on the end of a wand carried by the Pariah girl who protects a handsome man from attack by animals in the forest (who turns out to be Vishnu), and those who see it simply as a chance to cackle some coloratura. In the score, the preceding section is marked “allegro moderato” and at the bell section “plus animé, crotchet = 132”, so it is clear that the tempo should still be quite moderate. Mesplé’s tempo is more like crotchet = 165 and jars seriously with the spirit of the music. The booklet tells us proudly that this recording was “chosen to accompany the fireworks display marking the 120th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower in 2009”—only too appropriate, given that she sings part of it purely as vocal fireworks. The other two excerpts are much better, though there is still more feeling and colour to be found in them, especially “Tu m’as donné le plus doux rêve”.
Mesplé is more at home in the role of the ingénue Sophie in Massenet’s Werther, and even more so in the Polonaise from Thomas’s Mignon and the Doll Song from Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann, where she can display her fleet coloratura and bright sound to great effect, though neither has quite the hoped-for sparkle. The CD ends with three Italian arias. The first aria was a considerable rarity when it was recorded in 1974, “Di piacer mi balsa il cor” from Rossini’s La gazza ladra; it sounds rather like a heavily revised version of “Una voce poco fà”. Mesplé sings it with considerable accomplishment, though I first listened to it without the booklet and, though I immediately recognised it as Rossini, even by the end I was not at all sure in what language it was sung. A substantial scene from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment comes next, and is perhaps the most successful track on the side. Mesplé conveys Marie’s sadness by a lovely shaping of the line, though the brightness of the voice hampers her, but brings an unexpectedly inward quality to parts of the “Salut à la France”. The final track is the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor and here the inability of the voice to encompass tragedy is a definite liability. It is certainly not without its pathos, but we have come to expect more depth in this music now.
I approached the second CD with a somewhat heavy heart; I have a distinctly limited tolerance for operetta of any nationality, and the prospect of an hour of “ooh là là” music really did not appeal. In fact, several of the tracks turned out to be a delight and definitely more successful than the operatic arias. Mesplé’s timbre suits this repertoire (whose music is, almost by definition, without the depths of opera) to perfection. The first aria is the delightful “Voix légère” from Massé’s Les noces de Jeannette; it would be hard to think of a better version than this. The perfumed music of Messager’s Madame Chrysanthème is also a delight and Mesplé moulds and shades the line with wonderful sensitivity. An excerpt from the complete recording of the same composer’s Véronique under Hartmann is less to my taste, but is a similarly fine performance. Two bits of Ganne’s Les Saltimbanque from the complete recording under Marty are both charming, but the Hahn, Offenbach and Lecocq items do not appeal to me, well-performed though they are. The section ends with two German pieces, though both are sung in French. The Viljalied from Merry Widow is a bit too bright and four-square, lacking the requisite whipped cream, but the arrangement of “Tales from the Vienna Woods” has a nice lilt.
The second CD ends with a very different feel, and is really the start of CD3 as it begins the sequence of French Mélodies. Mesplé is what the great John Steane would have called a “non-interventionist” singer in her approach, by which he meant a singer who does not attempt to colour and characterise very word and respond tonally to every change of harmony in a song, but relies on the musical line to make the effect. Whatever the disadvantages of this approach in German Lieder, it is an approach very suited to French Mélodies, where emotion is kept under strict control, and Mesplé’s understated approach is entirely appropriate. The three folksongs collected and arranged by Weckerlin, accompanied by harpsichord, which begin this section, are stylish, and Gounod’s “O ma belle Rebecca” is a lovely performance of a lovely song. Fauré’s “Arpège” perhaps lacks an important aspect of sensuality, but it is arguable that in Fauré the emotion should always be understated. The last item on CD2 is a single German Lied stuck here for lack of anywhere better, I suspect. Liszt’s “Bist du!” is a list of similes of the qualities of the singer’s beloved, and the quiet, rapt line rising to an ecstatic climax that Mesplé provides is all that is really needed. A very successful performance.
The continuance of this Mélodie sequence on CD3 begins with four songs by Hahn, beginning with a particular favourite of mine, “A Chloris”. Mesplé sings this exquisite 18th century pastiche with just the right sort of cool detachment which is essential for French song. “Infidélité” in beautifully moulded, and in “L’heure exquise” she floats the E flats perfectly. Debussy’s “Quatre chansons de jeunesse” follow and, though it seems highly unlikely for a tape original, if this were a transfer from 78s I would certainly think that it was transferred a semitone high; the vibrato seems too fast and fluttery and the tone is shallow beyond anything else in the set, but they are at score pitch, so perhaps that is just how her voice was on that day. The performance is full of character, even so, though the text could be articulated more pointedly. Ravel’s “Cinq melodies grecques” are a little under-characterised compared to Victoria de los Angeles, for example, both in the melancholy of “Là-bas vers l’église” and in the crazy high spirits of “Quel gallant” and “Tout gai”, though “Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisque” is lovely. I did not know Ravel’s “Ballade de la reine morte d'aimer”, but is a beautiful song, sung with exactly the right emotion, deeply felt but not on the surface. Roussel’s “Deux Poèmes de Ronsard” for soprano and flute are real rarities and are sung with the perfect detached clarity. Poulenc’s bitter-sweet “Fiançailles pour rire” require, and get, exactly the same style of performance, and for me are a lovely discovery. The songs of Satie could almost have been written for Mesplé; her style is exactly right for their detached, ironic approach, and she does not disappoint in them. “Je te veux” is especially lovely.
The titling of the last CD, whilst being absolutely accurate, does have something of the air of desperation about it: “XXth Century Music, Motet”. In the middle of a series of 20th century songs is plonked Vivaldi’s 12-minute motet In furore for no reason that I can understand except an inability to find a more appropriate home for it. One of the most surprising, and admirable, aspects of Mesplé’s career (and one, I must confess, that I had no idea about) was her commitment to modern music. In 1963 she premiered Gian Carlo Menotti's French version of his opera The Last Savage and was also the first to sing the French version of Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers in 1965, She worked with Pierre Boulez a number of times and he chose Mesplé for his performance of Schoenberg's Jacob's Ladder. She also commissioned works by contemporary composers, including the 15-minute “Quatuor II” for soprano, violin, viola and cello by Betsy Jolas and “Quatre poemes de Sappho” for the same forces by Charles Chaynes, which are both included in this issue. Both are written in an uncompromisingly modern style, they are not just pieces that happen to have been written recently; they inhabit the world of, say, Messiaen rather than Poulenc, and I found them very enjoyable. The Vivaldi, recorded in 1974, is, of course, pre-“authentic” but is none the worse for that as far as I am concerned, and allows Mesplé to inhabit a character whose emotional state is quite unlike anything else in the issue. Her coloratura is excellent here. Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” is not of the quality of de los Angeles’ version, but the Poulenc and Rodrigo songs which follow it are very good. The set ends with what is, in effect, an encore, Delibes’s “Les filles de Cadix”. This is sung with real panache and sends us off with our ears ringing from the F sharp above top C which ends it.
It is a shame, though absolutely understandable given the super-bargain price of the set, that no texts are provided. It is, however, not really good enough just to provide the year of the recordings—collectors expect exact recording dates nowadays. On the subject of texts, for those who do not know it, I cannot recommend too highly the wonderful
LiederNet Archive where you can find the texts (often with translations) of a staggering 150,000 lieder and art songs for free (though donations are much appreciated). I found there most of the texts of the songs in this issue. It is an absolutely invaluable resource for anyone who takes song seriously.
Delibes: Où va la jeune Indoue? 'Bell Song' (from Lakmé)
Delibes: Les fleurs me paraissent plus belles (from Lakmé)
Delibes: Lakmé! Lakmé!...Tu m'as as donné le plus doux rêve (from Lakmé)
Massenet: Du gai soleil, plein de flamme (from Werther)
Thomas, Ambroise: Ah, pour ce soir...Je suis Titania (from Mignon)
Lalo: Cher Mylio À l'autel, j'allais rayonnant (Le Roi d'Ys)
Offenbach: Les oiseaux dans la charmille (from Les Contes d'Hoffmann)
Rossini: Di piacer mi balza il cor (from La gazza ladra)
Donizetti: C'en est donc fait...Par le rang et par l'opulence...Salut à la France (from La fille du régiment)
Donizetti: Il dolce suono mi colpì di sua voce! … Spargi d'amaro pianto (from Lucia di Lammermoor)
Massé, V: Au bord de chemin … Cette nuit, sur ma croisée (from Les noces de Jeanette)
Messager: Le jour sous le soleil beni (from Madame Chrysanthème)
Messager: Petite dinde (from Veronique)
Messager: Duo de l'escarpolette (from Veronique)
Ganne: C’est le première fois (from Les Saltimbanques)
Ganne: La Bergère Colinette (from Les Saltimbanques)
Hahn, R: Y’a des arbres … C’est sa banlieue
Hahn, R: Nous avons fait un beau voyage (from Ciboulette)
Offenbach: Je suis veuve d’un colonel (from La vie parisienne)
Offenbach: On va courir, on va sortir (from La Vie Parisienne)
Offenbach: Voici, j'en prendrai un, deux, trois, quatr', cinq (from Pomme d'Api)
Offenbach: Pedro possede une guitare (from M. Choufleuri restera chez lui le)
Lecocq: Je soupire et maudis le destin...O Paris, gai séjour de plaisir (from Les Cent Vierges)
Lehár: Viljalied (from Die lustige Witwe)
Strauss: Légendes de la forêt viennoise
anon.: Maman, dites-moi
anon.: Non, je n'irai plus au bois
anon.: Jeune fillette
Gounod: O ma belle rebelle
Fauré: Arpège, Op. 76 No. 2 (Samain)
Liszt: Bist du!, S277
Hahn, R: A Chloris
Hahn, R: Quand je fus pris au pavillon
Hahn, R: Infidélité
Hahn, R: L'heure exquise
Debussy: Quatres chansons de jeunesse
Ravel: Cinq mélodies populaires grecques
Ravel: Ballade de la reine morte d'aimer
Ravel: Manteau de fleurs
Roussel: Deux Poèmes de Ronsard, Op. 26
Poulenc: Fiançailles pour rire, FP101
Poulenc: A sa guitare
Poulenc: Les chemins de l'amour
Satie: Le chapelier
Satie: La diva de l'empire
Satie: Je te veux
Betsy Jolas: Quatuor II
Chaynes: Quatre poemes de Sappho
Vivaldi: In furore iustissimae irae, RV626
Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5: Aria (Cantilena)
Rodrigo: Cuatro madrigales amatorios: De los álamos vengo, madre
Poulenc: La Dame de Monte Carlo
Delibes: Les filles de Cadix
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